Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Browsing to Expand Horizons

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something (or so Thorin said to the young dwarves). You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”
The Hobbit

In this Internet Age it’s easy to rely on search engines and lists of recommended product/content generated by computer-driven algorithms. Unfortunately this limits our exposure to potentially interesting or inspiring material. Perhaps we could occasionally venture beyond our cozy, narrowly curated experiences and return to that pre-internet habit of browsing, wandering through landscapes likely to cater to our interests in search of something new. You never know what you’ll find.

Browsing informed my earliest exploration in the realm of fantasy and science-fiction literature. The summer before my senior year in high school I immersed myself in novels and short stories thanks to the independent bookstore in my hometown (Books on the Common, about which I’ve reminisced before) and a keen bookseller who always made sure he stocked all the titles in any series engaging my interest. In the cozy corner near the single bookshelf unit devoted to such fantastical fare I could browse paperbacks, marvel at cover illustrations, and take my time perusing beguiling back-cover copy before deciding which book to purchase for my week’s reading. In the days before the internet enabled access to a worldwide network of fans, online bookstores, reviews, and author bibliographies I browsed that small sci-fi/fantasy section and exposed myself to the wonderful writings of Niven, Eddings, Moorcock, and others I’d never have found otherwise.

In college, as a Creative Writing major, I was paging through a dictionary seeking the meaning of some unknown word...a practice I don’t hear encouraged as much as in my time, certainly one replaced with the expediency of surfing over to Merriam-Webster.com and looking up words in the search field. As I was paging through “M” I noticed an interesting guide word. Remember guide words, those words in the upper corners of the dictionary pages that indicated the range of alphabetical listings on each page to aid reference? “Memnon.” I’d never noticed the name before despite a great interest in myths, science fiction, fantasy, and other fantastical literature. “Memnon: 1. an ethiopian king killed by Achilles in the Trojan War and made immortal by Zeus. 2. a gigantic statue of an Egyptian king at Thebes, said to have emitted a musical sound at sunrise.” That definition – encountered by sheer chance browsing through the dictionary – fired my imagination and spurred me to investigate more about the singing statue, inspired me to wonder about an archaeologist who might have found the artifact and what he might have learned from it. My initial explorations formed the basis of a historical short story for my creative writing fiction class and later, in an altered form, my first professional short story sale, “Memnon Revived.” The experience started my long immersion in both ancient and Victorian Egypt.

I spent many hours in my college’s modern yet labyrinthine library browsing the stacks, following leads in the card catalog (and later computerized catalog), and immersing myself in books on interesting topics I never would have discovered without the fertile environment for a wandering mind. Sure, I’d hunt down a particular book that seemed interesting, but after examination would wander to the left and right on the shelf to see if any other tome offered information or a new perspective on my chosen topic. That browsing experience often revealed new resources, an opportunity not easily replicated by computers or the internet.

Although I don’t always have the patience to wander flea markets, thrft shops, tag sales, and used book stores, I’m always delighted when browsing those environments pays off (a topic I’ve briefly explored before). My past forays into these fields unearthed such interesting treasures like an old copy of Tactics II, Red Storm Rising, and even the old TSR Sirocco, each worthy of examination for new gaming ideas. A recent trip to the regional used bookstore revealed a first-edition copy of Frank Chadwick’s A House Divided, an operational-level Civil War game published by Game Designers’ Workshop. I’d never heard of the game before, though I know Frank Chadwick’s name from GDW, wargaming, and, of course, Space 1889. The box held no mention of it winning the prestigious Charles S. Roberts Award for best pre-twentieth century game. To me it just looked like an interesting, fairly simple Civil War game by a noted designer (the back-of-the-box complexity scale rated it as “introductory,” right up my alley). Living where I do in central Virginia and having a natural interest in history, I’ve slowly started delving into Civil War history in both books and games. A House Divided will offer a chance to explore the war on a full scale (though someday I’d like to acquire Columbia Games’ Bobby Lee for an operational-level game focused on Virginia). Had I not browsed the used bookstore’s board game section, I wouldn’t have discovered the game and found this engaging opportunity to further explore the Civil War.

Certainly we can browse the internet, though it’s often a more curated experience given our interests and those of the people we follow through blogs and social media. We read websites that engage us, follow links to blogs those bloggers like, perhaps learning something new through these shared interest groups. Google+ enables users to create a curated experience following people who share similar tastes or joining Communities of people sharing common interests. Ordering materials from an online venue often brings up a page of recommendations often based on what others who purchased an item also ordered. Yes, these help us broaden our horizon and consider new aspects of our interests to explore; but they’re still limited in scope.

We need to move beyond our comfort zones, exploring new terrain relevant to our interests but abundant with new ideas beyond our established experience. Wander the stacks of your local library to see if any titles or covers jump out and tempt you. Read a book on the fringes of your usual subjects. Go to a convention or game store and find a new game to try. Browsing stimulates our inquisitive nature and invites us to venture beyond our existing interests and knowledge.

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